What it will take to improve all students’ chances is complex, but it’s not a mystery. In Chicago and across the country, school districts, private social service organizations and corporations are joining forces to create the scaffolding every student needs to do well in school and in life. For Chicago Public Schools — America's fastest-improving urban school district — we believe such an all-hands-on-deck approach to education will accelerate progress even further and sustain it for decades to come.
Chicago’s corporations can be the spark for that leap forward. Many of them have built a generous legacy in Chicago already, and we challenge those forerunners and other local businesses to underscore even further their commitment to the students and future of this city. At a time of shrinking education budgets, they have the opportunity to pick up the slack and help write education history.
We’re not talking about big businesses taking over schools or foisting their preferred educational philosophy on teachers and principals. Not at all. Rather, businesses can invest in the great nonprofit partners that have shown they can work with school districts to boost student success, as well as in research that aims to uncover new strategies for dismantling the barriers students face.
Take North Chicago-based pharmaceutical company AbbVie’s announcement in November of its $55 million investment to be split among three nonprofits — Communities In Schools, City Year and The University of Chicago Education Lab — working in Chicago and across the nation. By putting its money behind proven programs, the company is fast-tracking the work of these organizations so more students can be reached sooner.
Communities In Schools’ nationally replicated model — in which staff members embedded in schools connect students to the essential services they need — has been shown to boost graduation rates, reduce dropout rates and improve student performance on state-mandated assessments. Here in Chicago, Communities In Schools’ local affiliate will expand to 16 new schools, reaching 7,000 more students a year and doubling the number of staff it places in schools to counsel students at risk of dropping out. Each year, 95 percent of students who work one-on-one with these highly trained staff members graduate or are promoted to the next grade. (The citywide five-year graduation rate was 78 percent last year.)
Communities In Schools’ comprehensive approach is complemented by City Year’s laser focus on academic tutoring and mentoring. The AmeriCorps national volunteering program, which places young adults as mentors in high-needs schools, including in Chicago, will expand to serve more than 18,000 students in 36 schools in Chicago over the next five years. The program has been found to shrink chronic absenteeism and lift scores on math and English assessments.
Meanwhile, The University of Chicago Education Lab, which aims to improve education in America’s most distressed urban neighborhoods, will work with CPS to implement programs for youth who face the stiffest barriers to staying in school. Just as important, it will evaluate how well these efforts work and test them in other parts of the country, spreading what it has learned in Chicago to other districts just as thirsty for change.
The future of Chicago’s children depends on putting in place what we know works and finding new and better ways to ensure every child receives the education he or she deserves. And while looking to corporate funding and nonprofit innovation is not a panacea for every ill students face, it is an essential step toward leveling the playing field for every student, because schools just can’t do it alone.
The stakes are high. If three-quarters of Chicago’s students are still poor in a generation, then the city will have failed at what we see as a major goal of public education: breaking the cycle of poverty. But change is possible. We envision a day when every Chicago public school student — and every student in the nation — graduates from high school and is prepared for success.
The private sector can play a critical role here, helping to make Chicago a bellwether for the nation and a shining example of how we can all work together for the future of our children.
Arne Duncan is managing partner at Chicago CRED, a nonprofit that connects young men to jobs and opportunity, and the author of “How Schools Work.” He served as U.S. secretary of education and Chicago Public Schools CEO. Dale Erquiaga is president and CEO of Communities In Schools, a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping students in school. He served as Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction.
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